Dec 1 2002

New York Times, NPR Recount Anti-War Protests

The day after the huge October 26 antiwar protests in Washington, D.C. and around the country, the New York Times (10/27/02) severely downplayed their significance. The paper’s short, page-8 report claimed that the “thousands” of demonstrators in the capital were “fewer people…than organizers had said they hoped for.”

Three days later (10/30/02), however, the same newspaper was reporting that the protests in D.C. “drew 100,000 by police estimates and 200,000 by organizers’, forming a two-mile wall of marchers around the White House. The turnout startled even organizers, who had taken out permits for 20,000 marchers.”

The Times‘ first draft was, by almost all accounts, way off. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times were both able to get more accurate figures on the size of the demonstrations, with the Post‘s front-page story headlined “100,000 Rally, March Against War in Iraq.”

What accounts for the Times‘ changing accounts? One likely factor was media activism. In response to an action alert from FAIR on October 28, hundreds–perhaps thousands–of activists took the paper to task for its dismissive and inaccurate coverage. While the paper issued no formal correction or editor’s note, the re-written account of the protests indicates that the message was heard. Times senior editor Bill Borders responded to some FAIR activists: “I am sorry we disappointed you,” he wrote. “Accurately measuring the size of a crowd of demonstrators is nearly impossible and often, as in this case, there are no reliable objective estimates.”

National Public Radio, another target of FAIR’s action alert, also initially offered misleading coverage of the D.C. protest. On October 26, NPR‘s All Things Considered included a report from correspondent Nancy Marshall, who said the demonstration “was not as large as the organizers of the protest had predicted. They had said there would be 100,000 people here. I’d say there are fewer than 10,000.”

The next day that estimate, along with the comment about the “prediction” of the organizers, was removed from a report on Weekend Edition (10/27/02), and NPR posted a correction on its website, which was read on the air on October 30: “On Saturday, October 26, in a story on the protest in Washington, D.C. against a U.S. war with Iraq, we erroneously reported on All Things Considered that the size of the crowd was, and I quote, ‘fewer than 10,000.’ While Park Service employees gave no official estimate, it is clear that the crowd was substantially larger than that. On Sunday, October 27, we reported on Weekend Edition that protest organizers estimated the crowd at 100,000. We apologize for the error.”

While the New York Times has not acknowledged its error, the reporter who wrote the first account, Lynette Clemetson, contacted the radio show Democracy Now! off-air to offer an explanation. Host Amy Goodman reported (10/31/01):

She told us she had pitched a broader story on the protests, and had predicted it would be a big march, a turning point in the anti-war coverage. She advocated enthusiastically for broad coverage. She said she arrived at the protest in the early morning, when the number of people there was still low. The editors pulled her off the story to work on a story on the Washington-area sniper. In the afternoon, as the numbers of protesters swelled, she called in a corrected estimate to her editor. That correction never made it into the article. She said she received numerous calls from people angry about the coverage, which she referred to the editors. She said she is glad people called to complain.

Other media outlets have noticed the Times‘ evolving coverage. A story in Editor & Publisher (10/30/02) suggested that the October 30 piece was a “make-up article” that may have been written “in response to many organized protest letters sent to the Times since the paper’s weak, and inaccurate, initial article about the march on Sunday.” The NPR program On the Media (11/1/02) also reported on the incident, referring to an “organized e-mail campaign against the inaccurate reporting.”

It’s not clear whether the New York Times, which has a long history of undervaluing citizen activism, has learned any permanent lessons. On November 9, after an antiwar march in Florence was estimated by police at 450,000 strong (Reuters, 10/9/02), the paper’s website featured the headline, “100,000 March in Italy to Protest War.” The next day’s print edition of the Times (11/10/02) had a different headline: “Florence Wary as Opponents of War Stage a Huge March”